Newcomer’s Guide to Business in Hawaii

This is also a good refresher course for kamaaina and a beginner's guide for young people starting their careers

September, 2017

New to town? Planning to do business in Hawaii? Then you should know that understanding local culture, with all its subtlety and surprises, is as important to success as paying your bills and keeping your word.

“Doing business in Hawaii is not substantially different than doing business elsewhere,” says attorney Jeff Watanabe. “However, a basic understanding of, and sensitivity to relationships, culture, history and customs can go a long way in achieving success.

“We’re used to being friendly and inviting, and people think that’s a sign of weakness. That would be a mistake,” says Watanabe, a retired partner in Watanabe Ing Kawashima & Komeiji LLP who has mentored many newcomers.

To compile this guide, Hawaii Business interviewed nine leaders from the public and private sectors, including some who grew up in the 50th State and others who have arrived here, successfully fit in and did well. Here are their suggestions.



You’re not anonymous. It’s a big small city.

“Hawaii (and Honolulu) is a big small city, so you need to approach it as if you were entering any small city,” says John Komeiji, chief administrative officer and general counsel for Hawaiian Telcom. “If you think of Hawaii in terms of being a small town, you’re always looking at, ‘Who are these outsiders?’

“So some of the suspicions about outsiders means you have to allay that by having people get to know you on a personal level. Once one person feels comfortable with you, and the word spreads, that helps you to expand your network. On the other hand, if people don’t trust you, or don’t like you, that spreads pretty quick too.”

“I’m not being a smart aleck here,” says Robin Hadwick, assistant dean of the Shidler College of Business at UH Manoa, “but the best way to get people to trust you is to be trustworthy. But recognize that the bar is high. People here have been lied to by strangers many times and they may start from a position of suspicion. You need to be very consistently honest, and follow through on commitments. If you do these things, you will build a reputation of trustworthiness.”



Be genuine, share who you really are. But don’t do it just to get something.

“There are a lot of outsiders who have become integral to this community. But it’s not about being an outsider,” says Komeiji. “If you come in here and know all the answers, people don’t like that. We may be a little more insular than other places, but we’re not unique in that.

“If you go anyplace and think you know all the answers, people don’t like that,” he says. “Setting aside the big metropolitan areas, places like Seattle are also still skeptical of outsiders. Part of it is whether you’re here to contribute to the community or just be a taker. No one wants to be associated with a taker. If you are looking for a business partner, (that person will wonder) ‘Are you truly going to be engaged in the community and should I be lending my credibility?’ If you’re new to town and I say you’re a good guy, and you end up being a taker, it affects my credibility too.”



Dump the suit and tie. 

“We use this as more of a joke than Webanything else,” says Wayne Ishihara, president of the Japanese Chamber of Commerce, which helps business people from Japan enter the Hawaii market, “but most of the time at the first meeting they’re all dressed in suits. So the first thing we tell them after the meeting is, ‘You better go to Reyn’s and get an aloha shirt.’ Most of them do. And if they come back and don’t have it, they come and apologize.”



Establish connections and relationships.

“Anywhere you go, Hawaii people are good at talking story because they want to create connections,” says Tanna Dang, co-owner with her husband of the boutique Eden in Love. “But I would say it’s more than just talk story. You’re looking for ways to create a bridge. When we establish a foundation, and a friendship, and I can trust you and you can trust me, we can create an abundance of opportunities together. Doing business in Hawaii, that’s what it comes down to. If we don’t have that, we have nothing.

“People like to do business with other people they respect, admire and trust. If you like that person, because you built that foundation, you can trust their ideas, their reputation and the longevity they’ve had in their career. For instance, you can shop around for insurance, or you can ask a friend you trust. It’s so much about referral because you trust relationships. That’s one of the sincere, genuine things about Hawaii, because your word means so much. If your word is everything, and who you are, your reputation is going to reflect that. On the flip side, if you’re not able to keep your word, then for sure people will hear about that too.

“For instance we got our contractor info for Vegas where we’re opening
a boutique from another person in Hawaii who started a business. We didn’t even look around. We just trusted this person and we loved this contractor. That’s the beauty of Hawaii. You save all of this time and energy because you can trust these people.”




Don’t think you know everything.

“I think a lot of people assume they’re being brought here because they have important skill sets. And that’s great,” says Jim Yates, president and CEO of Par Pacific, which supplies fuel to about 100 local gas stations. “But in Hawaii, you don’t bring them into town as a weapon to conquer, you bring them as a gift to share.

“There are three words you need to remember,” continues Yates, who arrived from Oklahoma 24 years ago, and expected to stay just six weeks. “They are humility, compassion and character. You’ve got to come in with humility where you’re asking people questions first and not kicking in the door and explaining things. You have to understand the way things get accomplished before you dictate an outcome: Start by getting to know the people in the community, and what’s important, and that takes patience and humility. And compassion.

“I don’t know who coined this phrase but it’s the one I most often repeat: ‘The people here don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.’ That simple phrase explains a ton about how to be successful in Hawaii, both professionally and personally. It speaks to how you should come into your new company, and into the community, and how to be successful and have people be open to you. If you kick open the door and start taking people to school, and don’t give enough time to make sure people know where your heart is, people shut down pretty quick. If you start with how much you care about them as an individual, and how much you care about this Island, then people are open.”


Advice from a Mainlander Who Learned to Fit In

Five tips from Robin Hadwick, assistant dean at the Shidler College of Business, UH Manoa:

Volunteer to build connections: “Honolulu is a tight business community and a lot of the connections are through community involvement through nonprofit organizations. I taught a leadership class last term and we had several guest speakers from the business community. Each one mentioned the positive role that nonprofit volunteering had on his or her career.”

Create a network: “After I had lived here for a year, I went back to graduate school. It created an instant network of local friends and led to a much greater understanding of local ways.”

Ask questions. “I would not have known the importance of a baby luau (or the right gift), how a local potluck works (everyone brings enough food for everyone), what to wear to a funeral (an aloha shirt) or how many jobs your employees have (often more than one) without getting a lot of advice.”

Avoid the biggest mistakes by newcomers: “Underestimating Hawai‘i, and how different it is. Thinking of it as a vacation paradise (which it is) and not a place for serious business (which it also is). Not having done enough homework before moving here. This leads to surprises about the cost of housing, school and food and where affordable neighborhoods are and the commutes that come with them.” Recognize how much you don’t know: “Treat new experiences as adventures.

Recognize the importance of family. Do not be quick to judge. Try new things (especially food). Choose a hobby that nurtures your creative side with something local, be it language, music or water

Related Stories

On Newsstands Now

October 2017

HB October 2017


by Beverly Creamer